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A Study of Shaka Zulu and His Influence on Modern Zimbabwe

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I am just back from a trip of about 1 200 kilometres around Zimbabwe. Everywhere I went I saw the empty skulls of a people driven off their land. Farm homes without windows, windows without curtains, gardens overgrown and dying, staff quarters empty and lifeless. Croplands idle and overgrown with weeds. Farm equipment rusting in the broken down sheds, hungry cattle without water, vultures having a feast day.

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It reminded me of the “mfecane” of the Transvaal Highveld in the early part of the 19th century in South Africa. The greatest Zulu leader in history, Shaka, often termed the Napoleon of African history, was responsible. Out of a tiny minority of only 2 000 people, he crafted the Zulu nation crushing and absorbing into the ranks of his impis the youth of the tribes to the north and south of his home and completely destroying the tribal peoples of the interior. Only three groups the Tswana of what is now Botswana, the Sotho of what is now Lesotho and the Dhlamini clan in what is now known as Swaziland, halted him in his ambitions.

His genius lay in a few simple military rules when a boy reached the age of 15 he joined a regiment or “impi”. Experienced and successful warriors, who passed on to their young wards the knowledge they had accumulated in numerous raids on other tribes, led the impi. Their reward was that they kept most of what they took by force, and although all cattle belonged to Shaka, they were allowed to use the cattle for their own ends. When Shaka felt they had proved their manhood, they were given the right to choose girls, to marry and establish their own homes. They were given land and the use of cattle to enable them to become established. Their bondage to Shaka was life long.

They were utterly ruthless and it must have been quite a sight to see an impi on a mission running in unison, their feet thundering out in rhythm on the dry African veld. When I was a boy growing up in the eastern parts of the Matopo Hills, some of the older men in the villages still wore the ring in their hair to signify their status as ndunas or officers in the Zulu war machine. In the case of the people I lived amongst it was an offshoot of the Zulu empire the Ndebele of southern Zimbabwe who had come to Zimbabwe in about 1820 after completing the “mfecane” on the highveld of South Africa.

What Shaka had ordered was that the people of the highveld be destroyed so that they could never again threaten the hegemony of the Zulu nation in the Natal coastlands. At his order, the impis of the Zulu clans moved up into what are today the Transvaal and the Free State and they murdered every man, woman and child they could find. Driving their cattle and other assets back to the Zulu heartland as gifts for Shaka and his senior chiefs. Only selected women were kept alive to be taken as wives on return at the pleasure of Shaka. It was ruthless and self-perpetuating so long as the Zulus could hold together and enforce discipline. Its success made the Zulus the dominant social, economic and political force in southern Africa. Its tentacles spread as far north as Tanzania and Malawi, as far south as the growing influence of the white man would permit.

At the start of the 19th century, the Afrikaner Boers started the “Great Trek” northwards eventually stopping in Chimanimani in eastern Zimbabwe. When their wagons crested the escarpments that sheltered the hinterland across the Vaal and Orange rivers, they found nothing but empty kraals and dry skulls.

At a recent meeting in Pretoria with their South African counterparts, the Zimbabwe Minister of Foreign Affairs told his South African hosts that the “land reform process is over in Zimbabwe and they would not be taking any more land from white farmers.” He then appealed to the South Africans to help them get compensation for the displaced farmers. In fact there is little left now on the highveld of Zimbabwe where the bulk of the countries 4 000 commercial farmers had once been. Perhaps some 15 per cent remain shell shocked and cowed, ready to run at the slightest hint that “they” are coming back. Like the tribes of the hinterland in South Africa there was no help in the face of overwhelming force, no rule of law to shield them from the loss of everything they owned and held dear. One interpretation of the word “mfecane” is “forced migration” or a pogrom.

Can anyone deny that Mugabe has done to the white farmers and the people who worked for them, just what Shaka did to the tribal peoples of the South African highveld? The fact that he has done this at the start of the 21st century, 200 years after Shaka, 50 years after the formation of the UN and the Declaration of Human Rights. 22 years after the signing of an agreement and the introduction of a negotiated constitution designed to prevent these sorts of excesses. Now just to round off the exercise we hear the government is uplifting thousands of farm workers and their families and dumping them without food or shelter near the Mozambique border in the north and east. Its forced migration or another “mfecane”.

What Shaka did not know at the time was that he was opening up the way for a new empire to become established on the highveld. An Afrikaner empire with superior weapons and great personal courage and determination. What he also did not know was that under the feet of his impis lay the richest mineral beds in the world and that one-day in the paths cleared by the Zulu warriors, new warriors would ride. Just as ruthless and cunning, using money as their weapon and trading their rights for privilege across the globe. Smuts, Rhodes, Beit, Oppenheimer, men who would influence world affairs for another 150 years.

Perhaps in the same way, a new nation is growing up in Zimbabwe. Its path cleared by the ruthless and cruel actions of another African tyrant, Mugabe. The principles he is using are the same, the effects similar, the object identical. Perhaps the outcome too, will be similar, a new nation will rise up in place of that being destroyed and it will be better, richer and more permanent than the fragile hegemony that Shaka thought would last forever. Tyranny never survives its perpetrators one day, one day soon, Mugabe will be swept aside by the very forces that he seeks to control. Then we will get the chance to build a better life for everyone that remains on the highveld in Zimbabwe.

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The highveld in our case is not geographical its based on principle. The principle of a nation foundered on the rule of law, of a constitution to which our people hold universal allegiance as the highest law in the land. The basic right of every man, women and child to life, liberty and respect, a deep commitment to democratic principles and to the creation of an open and transparent society. A pipe dream? No it need not be would the people of the South African highveld ever dreamed that one day a third of the economic power of Africa would come out of the area known as the “whitewater ridge” in the Transvaal? No of course not, but within 100 years of the terrifying nights of the mfecane, this was already a reality and Shaka only a memory.

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